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Learning to Code Freebies

This is a strange time in your kids' lives. Their schools closed months ago, their summer plans have been drastically changed, and they can't even visit their friends in person. But they are not alone in this experience. In 1665, Sir Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge due to the bubonic plague. While in quarantine, Newton made a number of important discoveries that shaped his life and career.

To help inspire your kids at home, Vernier Software & Technology, an educational company best known for their science software and hardware products that allow students to collect and analyze data in the classroom, has put together an activity that encourages kids to tell the story of Newton’s “year of wonders” through code. Kids can use the Scratch coding app to bring Newton’s story alive. Once they’ve finished telling Newton’s story, they can also use Scratch to code their own story. Storytelling empowers us; challenge kids to use code to share their stories and try out the other activities available for free on the site, including a reading about Newton’s cure for the plague that involves “toad vomit.”

Newest Pokemon App Advocates Teeth Brushing

Here is a new take on gaming - Pokémon Smile is an augmented reality (AR) toothbrushing game designed to encourage kids to brush their teeth better. In Pokémon Smile, players help “rescue other Pokémon from cavity-causing bacteria” by brushing their teeth. The app features some adorable art styles and AR effects that let players wear Pokémon hats while they brush their own teeth alongside the game. If you manage to brush away all the bacteria, players are rewarded by getting to catch the Pokémon at the end. Pokémon Smile isn’t The Pokémon Company’s only attempt at leveraging the brand into healthier living: the company also announced a sleep-tracking game called Pokémon Sleep last year.

How To Keep Your Kids Safe While Playing Games Online

During the pandemic it has been almost inevitable that kids and adults are playing more games online. The usual top pieces of advice about keeping your kids safe with online games is to be familiar with the games they play, to play with them if possible, and to talk to them about how they feel about these games. With luck, parents may have had a little more time to do just that during the lockdown. Beyond that basic advice, there are several categories of things parents should also be thinking about:

  1. Privacy
  • Make sure your child picks a username that protects their identity. Try to pick something that has no clues to name, birthday, hometown, school or phone number. Be creative!
  • Remind kids to never share with their password or gaming account with anyone else, even good friends. That password may be a way for a stranger to figure out passwords for other accounts if they are similar. Having that information, even if only for a “joke,” can let someone else use their account to harass, bully, or post inappropriate things.
  • Kids are easily led into sharing little tidbits of information about their life but instruct them to keep any conversations with people they are playing with about the game itself. If someone starts asking personal questions, it might be best to stop talking to them.
  • Most online games and gaming apps have privacy settings that you can set (an online search to help you find out how for any particular game). Many have privacy settings that have options for showing information such as when you're online and what games you're playing. Additionally, consider limiting who can play with your kids in the game.
  1. Avoiding Cyberbullying
  • Kids should understand that people can and do lie about who they are online, especially when they are playing games. While it is fun to talk to people kids meet while playing, it is smart to assume they are lying about who they are. They should always treat online “friends” as strangers and never agree to talk to or meet them in real life.
  • Cyberbullies have discovered gaming is a great place to find targets. Your children need to know that they can tell you when someone is being mean to them online and that their experience isn’t going to bring an abrupt end to their gaming life. When they do tell you about an incident, talk to them about what happened and help them figure out how to block that person. Emphasize to them that it is never okay for someone to send mean messages or mistreat them while playing a game, but sometimes things can be said in the heat of the moment when someone is angry about losing. It is important for them to know that repeat patterns of harassment or abuse are not acceptable.
  • Most important, keep talking to your kids about their gaming experiences. Reiterate the importance of protecting their personal information and listen carefully when they are talking about their online friends for any clues to that fact that there may be bullying going on. Ask if they have needed to block anyone. Questioning them about what their character in a game is currently doing can also help you decide if the game is appropriate for them.
  1. Beware of Scams and Expenses
  • Caution kids to avoid downloading tip or cheat sheets for online games as they may contain a virus or spyware, even if these come up in the game itself or appear on the website of the game developer.
  • Help your children to review ratings and reviews on games before they play. Always make sure a game is appropriate for your child’s age range. Make sure that other players say they enjoyed the game and did not experience technical issues.
  • Turn off in-app purchases so your child can’t run up a bill. Some games are free to download and may also offer free game play. However, these games are often set up for in-app purchases if players want access to higher levels. Your child may accidentally make expensive in-app purchases while they’re playing, which can result in a huge bill. Open the app or mobile settings on your child’s phone and switch off in-app purchases
  • Other players may offer to sell your children characters or gear, but as with anything on the Internet, it may not be what it seems. Be sure to research that the person is active on gaming sites and has been around long enough to have the characters or gear they’re selling. It’s better to pay through a service like PayPal so you can file a claim if the person is scamming you.
  1. Set Limits and Offer Breaks
  • Gaming is fun, but kids can get carried away and not realize how long they are playing. Limit how much time your child can play in a single session.
  • Tell you children they can’t play games until their homework or chores are done.
  • Offer alternative activities like getting outside to play catch, take a walk, play with the dog, etc.
  • Make sure your kids are taking breaks when they are tired, hungry, or getting frustrated by a game.

Reading and Tech Resources

While you might think most reading resources are offline, there are a number of digital options if you are looking for creative ways to get your kids reading. Check out these ideas to bring together literacy and technology:

  • Audiobooks: Audible, perhaps the motherlode of audiobooks, is free for kids as long as schools are closed. Looking for some recommendation? A site called Imagination Soup has some Audiobook Recommendations for Kids Ages 6-12 and Teens.. An easy-to-use free app Libby/Overdrive also connects to your local library so you can easily check out ebooks and audiobooks. Unite for Literacy also has books narrated in a variety of languages. You can get a month free of animated story books at Vooks. Tumble Book Library might also have something the others don’t offer. Storybook Online offers famous actors and actresses reading picture books out loud.
  • Make a Book Trailer: One idea for getting kids and family (especially grandparents) to engage more over Facetime or Zoom is to get them to read the same book and talk about it. You could take it a step further by asking your kids to make a book trailer to get others to want to read your book. Try this link to look at a collection of book trailers and suggestions for various apps to use to make a short video advertising your book. For teachers looking for creative ways to include technology into reading assignments, a trailer also makes a great alternative to a book report.
  • Create a Book:  To practice those writing skills, why not have your kids write a book about something they’ve become interested in? Book Creator has great ideas on how to proceed and is free to schools affected by the pandemic. Or try this list of Best Apps for Creating Books and Storybooks for resources. This is a great way to get kids actively using technology rather than just be entertained by it.

How Not to Feel Guilty About Gaming During Pandemic

Are you finding that you are playing more video games during the pandemic? How about your kids? In a column entitled “I'm Gaming My Way Through Quarantine — and That's Nothing to Feel Guilty About” from Time magazine online, Matthew Gault says playing games can be a way to compartmentalize what is going on, and can make “social distancing” feel a little more social and a little less distant. And he is not alone. Gaming is up substantially on all the provider’s networks. Experts seem to agree that as long as you are getting some exercise and finishing your chores, work, and homework, there really are no limits on gaming during these times. And if your kids seem to be playing a lot? Ask them if you can play along. It is a great way to find out what they are doing with their time and to build up some credibility in talking to them in the future about gaming.

Kids, Technology and Staying at Home

Technology is a lifeline for many during the stay at home orders of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is allowing people to work and go to school remotely, stay entertained, and instantly check in with those we care about. It is also makes it possible for scientists to look at real time data about outbreaks and model everything from best to worst case scenarios.

In addition, a vast array of technology resources for keeping kids busy at home are being offered online, but a few words of caution. While there are lots of resources coming from vetted sources, it is still important to make sure you know what your children are viewing and to check in with them on a regular basis. Check out the Common Sense Media site for free reviews and ratings of movies, TV shows, apps and games. While you may have to relax your screen time restrictions to get through your “work from home” day, it is important to keep their day as varied as possible. You can break up those screen time binges with a few minutes outside, a clean up the house project (there are lots of great ideas for making cleaning fun for kids), a craft project, cooking, baking, 15 minutes of family exercises, playing a board or card game, a walk with the dog, or anything that does not involve looking at a screen.

Now is also a great time to help your elementary and older kids use technology in a more engaging way. Instead of having screen time where they are strict consumers of content, try introducing projects where they use the technology in creative ways. For younger kids, look for printables that they can use to make things such as masks, puppets, model buildings, and so much more. There are also loads of inexpensive or free apps for phones and laptops for activities such as composing music or making and editing short movies, comic strips or stop action snippets. Some other ideas:


  • Make Your Own Game: Ask them to make up a board game on a subject of interest to them and have them find, resize and use graphics from online sources.
  • Travel Research: Have them to do some research on places to consider for your next family trip. You could even have them create their own travel brochure.
  • Make a Photo Book: Put together a family cookbook complete with pictures or create a photo album of a notable day, sports team they were on, or trip.
  • Make Something Special for Somone: Got birthdays or other special occasions coming up? Have your kids create magazine covers featuring a picture of the person being celebrated and come up with “featured” article tag lines to describe the person or what they do.
  • “Visit” Museums, Zoos or Aquariums: Start by searching for your local museum, zoo or aquarium online for lessons and supplemental materials as they may have things specific to your state’s science curriculum. On the national level, the Smithsonian has science, art history and culture activities for kids of all ages. For a cross section look at what museums all over the world feature try the link  “Cool Online Museums for Curious Kids.”
  • Virtual Art Lessons: Looking for something to break up the day? Do a search for Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems from The Kennedy Center. Or the Art for Kids Hub


In short, look for activities where kids use the technology to create and are not just being entertained by staring at a screen. In addition, here are some categories of resources, with specific examples, you may want to look at just for fun or to supplement online lessons your children are doing.


Lastly, if you are struggling to balance work and life with taking care of your kids at home, give yourself some grace and remember there is a distinction between “working from home” and continuing to do your job at home during a crisis.

Social Media and Gaming: The New Frontier

New research from Kantar reveals that while Generation Z (those with birthdates between the mid 1990s and mid 2010s) is more active on social media than any other age group, their favorite apps aren’t YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat or TikTok. Kids in this generation are most at home in the private and creative world of video games. Nearly 90% of them are gamers (compared to 59% of the total population) and are finding social communities within games such as "Fortnite." Kantar's Michelle Brisson says, "They are just changing the way social media works for them, participating in smaller, niche ecosystems."

Kids Seeking Toys Connected to YouTube Videos

Toy makers have started striking licensing deals with YouTube channel creators as children are increasingly seeking out toys based on their favorite YouTube programming. For example, toy manufacturer Jazwares will start selling merchandise based on three popular children's YouTube channels this year - Blippi, a preschool education-and-entertainment character with more than 21 million subscribers; toy-unboxing and reviews channel CKN Toys, which has 14.7 million subscribers; and Cocomelon, a channel known for nursery rhymes, which has 74 million subscribers. Jazware's Laura Zebersky says, "The world has changed and you will see properties ranging from 'Fortnite' to influencers on YouTube who are leading and competing against movies and TV shows on a day-to-day basis."

Esports: Some Ideas for Including Girls and Downplaying First Person Shooters

Esports are quickly gaining momentum -- with more colleges and universities offering scholarships to high-school competitors and a projected audience growth rate of 15% in 2020 -- but the gamer base remains primarily male, white and upper middle class. Some K-12 schools, including Hathaway Brown in Ohio, are implementing programs aimed at drawing more girls into Esports and downplaying games that center on first person shooters as their primary plot line.

Protecting Your Young Gamers

According to a recent New York Times investigation, sexual predators have found an easy access point into the lives of young people: They are meeting them online through multiplayer video games and chat apps, making virtual connections right in their victims’ homes. Many of the interactions lead to crimes of “sextortion,” in which children are coerced into sending explicit imagery of themselves.

What can parents do to prevent those kinds of contacts and exchanges? Experts say that first and foremost, parents need to spend time with kids on new apps and games so that they learn the features and can set realistic rules for when and how children can interact with others online. Showing an interest in what games your kids play also builds trust that they will be able to have honest conversations about issues they may run into down the line. As kids’ online lives begin to expand, parents should also educate their children on how to block other users who make them uncomfortable. Lastly, experts warn that parents must remember that they are ultimately responsible for being their child’s online protector.